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Which for Web services: All-from-one or one-for-all?

In the emerging world of services-oriented architectures, which enterprise philosophy works best?

Dr. Fordham has held key leadership positions in advanced technology and product development with Oracle, The National...

Institute of Standards and Technology, AT&T and GE. He advises U.S. government agencies and Fortune 100 global technology companies, and currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Online Insight, Inc. in Atlanta.

Market Commentary

Whether making IT decisions for an independent software vendor (ISV) or a large enterprise, there are few with broader implications than the choice of business software infrastructure.

There are two core philosophies that enterprises can employ. I like to call them "all-from-one" and "one-for-all." In an all-from-one approach, the enterprise adopts a vendor's proprietary framework and deploys systems built on it. In a one-for-all approach, the enterprise selects a set of technology standards that systems must support, thereby remaining vendor-independent. I have made both choices at different points in my career and found that they lead to starkly different results.

Microsoft, as an example of all-from-one, has an established record of building Windows operating systems with extensive Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to allow software engineers to develop new applications on top of their proprietary framework. Advancements in personal computing have come from this all-from-one infrastructure approach, including faster development of new solutions, ease of use through common wizards and help functionality, and faster deployment across desktops by few administrators.

Microsoft's .NET and Web services strategy extend this all-from-one approach from desktops to the enterprise. Here applications such as customer relationship management, sales force automation, enterprise resource management, and sales and marketing effectiveness – all critical to an enterprise's daily function – are shared by the entire organization and constantly communicate with each other and with external systems controlled by partners, suppliers, brokers, regulators, and more. It is at this point of enterprise integration that the all-from-one approach faces its most significant challenges.

ISVs and enterprises choosing an all-from-one path are limited by the single platform on which applications must run. Web services are reduced to being a revolutionary new platform API providing XML interoperability to platform applications over the Web. Many hardware and software solutions, otherwise providing significant business value or cost savings, are no longer options. Most importantly, however, the enterprise loses control over its technology destiny. The platform vendor alone has ultimate control over critical issues like scalability, security, ease-of-maintenance, and compatibility for applications. Dependency on the all-from-one platform and the vendor that maintains it is constant and complete.

Given these observations, it is important for a business or ISV who is adopting an all-from-one philosophy to carefully watch and evaluate the actions, vision and commitment of the platform vendor on which the viability of critical business applications depends. Conversely, it is incumbent on the platform vendor to successfully explain why changes in pricing, technology, branding and vision are in customers' best interest.

In contrast, one-for-all infrastructures such as IBM's Java-based WebSphere, are built on open standards. Instead of locking customers into a proprietary platform, they natively support and even encourage transactions across an open, multi-platform environment. This provides wider choice of hardware, operating system, technology implementations and Web services.

Leveraging open standards empowers the business to set its own destiny by changing systems, vendors, and development strategies as needed to control scalability, reliability, security, connectivity, and all other critical aspects of core business software. It also removes the need for the customer to "rip-and-replace" because they can re-use existing software that has been acquired over decades of investment, and bring those assets into the world of Web services.

This one-for-all strategy also views the Internet much more broadly as an open infrastructure for building and managing network-based applications. Web services are evolutionary instead of revolutionary – the next stage in IT integration driven by open standards, using a variety of languages running on a variety of platforms, and enabling businesses to extend applications into new opportunities.

One-for-all vendors can focus on interoperability and qualities such as security and the ability to reliably handle high-volume transactions, because they are independent of application-logic concerns. Even tools are more open. In the case of IBM and hundreds of other vendors, tools are built on open-source technology, providing a unified, portal-like interface across development software from different vendors giving customers maximum choice.

In our emerging world of services-oriented architectures, the best chances for success with an all-from-one approach lie in small companies, not mid-to-large size companies where heterogeneous and legacy systems are a fact of life, and multi-platform security and scalability are an absolute necessity. For these larger companies and the ISVs that serve them, one-for-all is the clear choice for success.

As a closing thought, given today's market forces, it is likely not a matter of "if" all-from-one providers will open up their platforms but a matter of "when".

Copyright 2003, Online Insight. Reprinted with permission. Online Insight, Inc. targets organizations that market complex, multi-attribute products, such as financial services, consumer electronics, insurance and real estate.

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This was last published in March 2003

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